As violence continues over control of the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray, Ethiopia’s future remains unsettled, even if the conflict ends soon. Achieving the federal government’s security objectives in Tigray is unlikely to resolve both new and entrenched political challenges, and already delayed national elections, now expected in 2021, may prove a severe test of Ethiopia’s political order, and consequently affect broader regional stability. Reconciling the electoral process with efforts for reconciliation and national dialogue is now even more imperative.

Ethiopian voters in Addis Ababa, the capital city, wait in line to vote during 2010 general elections. (Uduak Amimo)
Ethiopian voters in Addis Ababa, the capital city, wait in line to vote during 2010 general elections. (Uduak Amimo)

The Conflict in Tigray

War sometimes starts like clockwork but predicting the date on which a conflict will end often leads to disappointment. Yet from the start of armed hostilities with the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed promised the conflict would be swift and decisive. On November 6, Abiy wrote that “operations by federal defense forces underway in Northern Ethiopia have clear, limited and achievable objectives.” On November 9, the prime minister said the military operation “will wrap up soon,” and the next day, that “our law enforcement operations in Tigray are proceeding as planned: operations will cease as soon as the criminal junta is disarmed, legitimate administration in the region restored, and fugitives apprehended and brought to justice—all of them rapidly coming within reach.” Claims that the conflict will be short-lived have also been echoed by senior American officials: U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Michael Raynor told journalists on November 19 that “another aspect of this is the Ethiopian government continues to articulate a vision of the military conflict coming to an end fairly soon, a week or two from now.”

Despite limitations on independent reporting and the severing of most communications, the federal government has announced significant military advances, capturing a number of important towns and cities in Tigray, including Shire on November 17, Axum and Adwa on November 20, and Adigrat on November 21. The TPLF has made counterclaims: that it inflicted significant casualties on federal forces in Raya and to have repulsed federal forces in Mehoni and Zalambessa. For the federal government, taking control of the state capital of Tigray, and its largest city, Mekelle, is now the principal remaining tactical military objective.

However, even if Abiy’s military objectives are quickly achieved, experiences of warfare in northern Ethiopia dating back a century suggest that it is much easier to capture territory than it is to hold it. It is unclear what a successful strategy for the federal government will be if it is able to capture Tigray’s urban centers but cannot command the widespread acceptance of Tigray’s people. While the fighting of the last few weeks may have significantly degraded the TPLF’s military capacity, it is unlikely that the federal government can entirely subdue the TPLF as a political entity, which retains the support of a substantial number of Tigrayans. Further, the TPLF’s historic capacity to wage guerrilla warfare from the rural mountains of Tigray may not be definitively eroded by its losses in conventional warfare.

While some in the federal government have indicated that they would accept a refashioned TPLF led by moderates, external efforts to re-engineer the party may well be counterproductive and only risk further alienating some Tigrayan constituencies. Therefore, as focused on their immediate objectives and consequently as reluctant to seek dialogue and compromise as they may be, the parties in conflict may find that a negotiated settlement may ultimately be the only realistic choice, if not imminently, then in the months ahead. Moreover, the federal government must soon confront an even bigger problem in 2021: how to conduct peaceful and credible elections.

The Prospects and Difficulties of Elections

National elections are overdue and are now expected to be held next year. While in February 2020, the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) announced that elections would be held in August 2020, by the end of March, the Board had decided to indefinitely delay the elections because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As NEBE explained, several important preparatory tasks were unable to be completed in March, meaning that the crucial voter registration exercise, which was expected to register tens of millions of prospective voters, was unable to commence in April.

Beyond the national polls, each regional state of Ethiopia is also due to hold elections for their state legislatures. It was the Tigray region’s decision to proceed with organizing its own elections in September, in defiance of the federal government and without the oversight and participation of the NEBE, that contributed to a deterioration of relations between Tigray and Addis Ababa, and which was a further step toward the violence now occurring.

Even without the impact of COVID-19 and the situation in Tigray, Ethiopia’s next national elections are fraught with difficulty. The polls are expected to be the first competitive elections since 2005 and raise fundamental questions about the future order of the Ethiopian state. Abiy’s new political vehicle, the Ethiopian Prosperity Party, is the national frontrunner, constructed from the former Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front ruling coalition, which was once led by the TPLF. Apart from the TPLF, a number of new opposition political parties are expected to contest the polls.

The challenges faced in administering elections are significant. The first problem is one of election administration, operations and reform: a rush to organize elections in early 2021, as some have suggested, may easily worsen the political situation across the country, as in such a limited time, elections are unlikely to be effectively administered. In May, the NEBE proposed two scenarios on which to base a prospective electoral calendar: the first required 224 days to prepare for and conduct elections, and the second required 276 days. However, at the end of October, NEBE proposed that the elections be held in late May or June 2021, contingent on beginning poll worker training in December and voter registration in January.

As early as December 2018, a USAID pre-elections assessment found that “there is a lack of consensus about specific solutions and timing of reforms in relation to the election cycle, and that information about and support for the reforms is inconsistent. The reform process has been largely elite-driven and concentrated in Addis Ababa, and there is a lack of clarity on a specific road map to achieving the goals set out by the prime minister.” While there has been some important progress since that assessment was made, conducting elections in Ethiopia will be the largest democratic exercise in the country’s history; the technical challenges should not be underestimated and cannot easily be expedited. More recently, NEBE has noted that the possibility of constitutional and electoral reform could also complicate the electoral calendar and has warned, “Preparations for electoral process based on [an] unstable timeline are not advisable. Only once these processes [of constitutional and electoral reform] are completed should an electoral timeline be consulted and announced, and preparations begin in earnest.”

The second, more profound problem in conducting elections concerns broader needs for security, trust, reconciliation, and the ability of Ethiopians to freely engage in open political discourse, debate, and campaigning. Even before the conflict with Tigray, there were more than 1.8 million internally displaced persons in Ethiopia. In May, Amnesty International reported that at least 10,000 people had been “arbitrarily arrested and detained last year as part of the government’s crackdown on armed attacks and violence in Oromia Region,” and in July, that another 5,000 had been arrested following protests the previous month. A number of prominent political figures and journalists were jailed before the Tigray conflict began, and more arrests of journalists have followed this month.

For their part, American officials have asserted that the conflict in Tigray has served to unite Ethiopians. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Tibor Nagy told journalists on November 19 that “it seems like [the conflict in Tigray] has brought the Ethiopian nation together, at least for the time being, in support of the prime minister …” Ambassador Raynor added that “the rest of the country actually remains quite calm at present, no indications of anyone taking up comparable actions elsewhere, and in fact the opposite. Seemingly both regional governments, federal governments, and large swaths of the people galvanizing around the [federal] government.”

Unfortunately, violence has continued elsewhere in Ethiopia. In a recent tragic incident, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission reported that at least 34 people were killed in a November 14 attack on a bus in Benishangul. Further, as the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs pointed out on November 20, “Humanitarian partners in Ethiopia are further concerned about the increasing report of violence in Oromia and Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP) regions. Violent incidents involving unidentified armed groups have been reported on an almost daily basis, mainly in the Western Oromia region, while several thousand people were reportedly displaced by inter-communal violence in Konso zone, SNNPR on 16 November.” Alas, any short-term increase in perceived or real Ethiopian national unity resulting from the current Tigray confrontation does little to address the problems of arbitrary detention or intercommunal violence elsewhere in the country.

For successful elections to be held, credibly and non-coercively addressing both insecurity and the underlying grievances behind the violence will be essential. An adequate response necessitates efforts at reconciliation, justice, and inclusive dialogue. While wider questions of reconciliation, reform, and elections cannot be the first point on the agenda in any eventual negotiations between the federal government and the TPLF, discussing them cannot be indefinitely avoided, either. More importantly, discussions on such issues must include many more political and civil actors beyond those now in conflict if at least a degree of national consensus is to be achieved. Squaring the electoral preparations and timetable with a plan for reconciliation and national dialogue may thus be imperative for a peaceful future in Ethiopia.

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